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Leptis Magna, Done Rome-ing
Published in Vanity Fair travel supplement, Spring 2011

Sometime in your life, you should walk through the ruined Roman city of Leptis Magna. It is amongst the antique wonders of the world, a vital call on any modern version of the Grand Tour. But Leptis is no Arcadian beauty. All its charm and vivacity comes from the works and character of the men who created it. It began as a humble trading station, one of the three dozen anchorages that stretched along the North African shore between the Phoenician home cities of Tyre and Sidon and the lucrative metals to be traded - Spanish silver, West African gold and Cornish tin - at the far western gates of the Mediterranean. So expect none of the elemental drama of landscape that you find at Delphi. Nor, despite the wild-man rhetoric and glamorous dress sense of the current leader of Libya, is it brushed by any of the Oriental exoticism you can feel at Palmyra.

The site, beside the modern port of Khums, lacks any romantic magnetism. Indeed this could be said for much of the shoreline of Libya, which looks so promising on a map, with the Sahara lapping at the shores of the Mediterranean. On close inspection, instead of the golden crescents of the Sahara fighting the white sandy beaches for possession of the shore, one finds a series of savagely eroded sandstone reefs decorated with litter and etched with oil spills. In search of a Byronic plunge-place, I have swum in vain off dozens of the archaeological sites of Libya (despite whistle blowing custodians) and in an even larger number of empty coves.

Leptis weathered the Roman conquest of North Africa and quickly emerged as one of the leading cities of the region. At the height of the Pax Romana, Roman North Africa boasted some six hundred cities whose landowning nobles packed a third of the seats in the Senate of Rome. Then, as now, it was oil which underwrote the wealth of Libya, though then it was cold-pressed and green not hot and black.

I can remember as if it was yesterday the experience of seeing the city unfold before me on a first visit some fifteen years ago. I had to pinch myself the whole time, to check that I was seeing and touching, not day-dreaming my way into a history book. Rainwater had filled the pools in the Hadrianic Baths, to create dazzling reflections of the thickets of marble columns, and as we passed the triple stacked grandeur of the Nymphaeum, I could almost hear and taste how the cascading water of this massive public fountain must have impressed visiting Berber traders riding in from the Sahara. The harbour, though silted up, retains its shops, stairwells, double walkways and surf-pounded lighthouse. The creak of ship’s timbers, the rowing benches of galleys and a forest of masts seemed almost to beckon from the reed beds that now occupy the inner basin. And my first view of the Severan Forum was totally silencing, made even more incredible by the adjacent gateways, processional avenues and the epic scale of the basilica.

To make doubly certain of wakefulness I swam out from the Roman lighthouse with my pregnant wife, after which we picnicked on bananas and dates whilst our security guard offered us cigarettes. It was a time when the Stars and Bars and the Union Jack got burned on a regular basis in Tripoli’s Green Square, British tourists were unheard of and we were presumed to be Bulgarian engineers. Even so, we found ourselves forced to make a sudden departure on a midnight ferry to Malta. Then, I thought I might never come back, but looking through my passports I see that I have been at least a dozen times since then - usually lodged in somewhere very forgettable. No-one goes to Libya for the accomodation, let alone the institutional hotel food, but it is easy to become very fond of its people and obsessed by its tangible history. As the streets of Leptis Magna become more familiar, they also become ever more alive.

Your first sight as you walk out of the shade of the eucalyptus trees, looking down on the site from the level of the sand-dunes which once covered it, is of an extraordinary white marble triumphal arch. The architect appears to have invented the baroque a thousand years before Bellini. The pediments are not just broken but twisted by ninety degrees to become acrotaria, pointing sky high into the heavens. Having climbed down into the excavated street level, staring up into the vaults of this arch, you come face to face with a family of Caesars, the Severan dynasty. The founder of this extraordinary dynasty was Septimius Severus, born into one of the noble clans of Leptis Magna. His family were proud of their Phoenician ancestry and their Libyan identity, but served as dutiful members of the Roman Senate, by turn performing as magistrates, soldiers and administrators. Septimius’s elevation to the imperial throne was pure chance. He was military commander of one of the key frontier zones (Hungary-Croatia) when the ruling Emperor was struck down by an assassin’s knife. Ostensibly seeking justice for his murdered master, Septimus’s four crack legions took him all the way to Rome and the throne, where he entered a world more bizarre, dirty and glorious than any television soap.

This whole magnificent archway, which spans what was the main coast road of North Africa, was built to honour Septimius’s fleeting visit of inspection to his hometown in 203 AD. It is the ultimate expression of local boy done good. The whole arch is riveted with marble panels that show the Emperor and his happy family doing Imperial things, like attending the sacrifice of some unblemished bulls. Two bare-chested, shaven-headed temple servants stand at the ready, one armed with a club to stun the beasts, another with a broad-bladed dagger to plunge straight into the throat artery allowing a torrent of hot blood to flow onto the altars. In the background, looking like a group of hungry vampires ready for a feast, are the pantheon of gods lined up to receive their share. In the foreground, beside the Emperor, stands Julia Domnia – Septimius’s purple-veined, blue-stocking of a partner, a Syrian princess with a taste for neo-Platonic philosophy - and their two charming boys looking all cute and serious in their togas. The perfect family group: father, mother, the heir and the spare, one sporty, one bright. But despite this imperial propaganda the boys grew up to loathe each other.

When their father died in York in 211 AD, during his campaign to conquer the wild clans who inhabited the Scottish Highlands, the family dynamic quickly unravelled. Like Cain and Abel, ‘sporty’ stuck a knife into his clever younger brother, even if it meant making things messy for his beloved mother, who had attempted to give her younger son refuge in her lap. Sporty prospered greatly from his crime, growing up to become a devilishly handsome Emperor. He is still the pin-up boy for those who love a brooding classical face, and no self-respecting eighteenth century classical mansion was complete without a portrait bust of the bewhiskered Emperor Caracalla looking like Hercules brought to life. He also did good, finishing many of his father’s vast building projects and continuing with his mother’s liberal causes, like making everyone in the Empire a citizen, not a subject. Those in the know about Gadaffi family politics, with one prominent son a sporty footballer, another a post-graduate scholar of politics and economics, prefer not to dwell for too long on this old dynastic tale.

In Leptis Magna stories burst out from the elegance of the stonework if you have the patience to look, and bring the ruins of this extraordinary city into rude life. Indeed on the two avenues just beyond the triumphal archway, there is something very rude and much larger than life carved prominently at eye level. An enormous cock on legs is set within the elegant frame of a classical scroll – and on closer inspection this one-eyed monster sports its own phallus which seems to be head-butting a lone eye. It seems scarcely credible to our view of the elegant classicism of the ancient world that this carving should have been placed on public show, but it is neither an aberration, nor a brothel sign nor an expensive piece of deviant graffiti. A dozen more grotesque phalluses can be spotted around the city - especially near old cross roads - and these monsters, often entangled with crabs, serpents and scorpions, will always be found attacking an eye. They were carved and painted to help deflect the power of the evil eye, that age-old Mediterranean dread, that the unwitting stare of poor, envious old widows and the like could bring ruin on even the greatest and most noble households.

Envy must have been common currency in Leptis. As you explore the city, be it forum, theatre, baths, it becomes evident that the whole place is a social stage, where being seen in the best place by as many of your fellow citizens as could be stage-managed was one of the motivating aims of life. The wealthy families of Leptis Magna were not hidden away like shy millionaire recluses in their mansion apartments but announced their riches in monument after civic monument.

The lowest rows in the amphitheatre, those with the very best view of all the killing, were ‘owned’ like a debenture by the wealthiest families. Likewise at the circus track the munificent family who sponsored the event sat in a canopied royal box. In the theatre, gold-ring-wearing nobles of the senate of Leptis Magna sat in the front rows, amongst the actors of the chorus, with an elegant stone balustrade separating their thrones from them the stone seats of the next class of citizens, the mere gentry, recognizable by their right to wear a silver ring. In either of the city’s two forums the leading members of the powerful families would have been instantly recognized as they processed into the Curia, the Senate House, or stood on the rostra and temple terraces to address the orchestrated crowds of male citizens as their elected magistrates. It was also their role too plead in the public law courts, and to pay for and preside over the temple sacrifices. Nor did their prominence stop with death, for the more virtuous would be ‘voted’ commemorative statues that would stand for ever amidst the bustle of the theatre, forum and the baths. Beyond the city walls, in the surrounding Necropolis (the city of the dead) the eminence of the great families continued to be expressed in clear architectural form as the graceful lines of their mausolea rose to look over their city, standing like a forest of spires.

But there was seldom any doubt that the noble families had earned their civic status. They were not only responsible for collecting the state taxes, but spent with an extravagance that underwrote the glory of Roman civilization. The ruins of the colonnaded marketplace in Leptis, filled with elegant marble benches, counters and seats, and overlooked by a pair of internal pavilions, was the gift of just one man to his city. In this market-place the free ranging spirit of the times is evident in measures which show the simultaneous use of both Punic cubit, the Roman foot and the cubit of Hellenistic Alexandria.

And that was not all, he then built the whole vast edifice of the city’s theatre, which his daughter (Sulphunibal) completed by topping it off with a shrine to the Goddess Ceres, which occupied a whole bank of seats in the upper tiers. She also made certain that her father’s name was proudly inscribed in his theatre, where it can still be seen today, ‘Annobal Tapapius Rufus son of Himilchio’. He had served as priest in many cult temples and as one of the presiding magistrates of Leptis but his proudest moment was when he was saluted with the title ‘ornator patriae’ – which is to say ‘decorator of the fatherland’. As suited a cosmopolitan trading city such as Leptis Magna, this inscription was carved in both neo-Punic (an Arabic looking script that was came out of the Phoenician cities of ancient Lebanon) and Latin.


Leptis was no left alone in sole domination of western Libya. She was one of the three sister-cities of the Tripolis province, still remembered in the name of the bustling modern capital city of Libya - Tripoli. By the end of the fifth century Leptis stood completely empty, toppled by earthquake, sacked by barbarians and civil war, its trade and its great estates stolen by its envious sisters (the cities of Oea and Sabratha). The phalluses had failed in their prophylactic effect to protect the awesome magnificence of Leptis from the evil eye. Tripoli (ancient Oea) alone survived the storms of history, and its Castle Museum is now one of treasure houses of antiquity, even if more half of its wonderful display of statuary seem to come straight from the Hadrianic Baths of Leptis Magna. Tripoli has also got the modern airport and the traffic jams, all the top hotels, an intriguing Islamic walled city complete with some charming 16th and 17th century mosques, some fine Italian colonial streets and a covered souk that bustles at midday and in the dusk of an evening.

To the West of Tripoli are the remains of Sabratha. Nothing this side of Ephesus can really be said to compete with Leptis - except the theatre at Sabratha. This dazzling stage with its monumental, three-storey backdrop is a midsummer dream of columns, royal doorways, recessed niches, barley-sugar twisted columns, variant capitals and balconies. It was painstakingly re-assembled by Italian fascist engineers in the 20s and 30s. Like a child with a bag of museum bricks, the Italian archaeologists found that the theatre had been toppled by the earthquake of 365 AD but that the ruins had not been quarried by the theatre-despising Christian age that followed it. So, after a decade of painstaking reconstruction, Mussolini was able to attend a production of Oedipus Rex in 1937 that reopened this exuberant stage.

Practically all that is missing from how the theatre would have been in the Roman period is the canvas sails that were hoisted over the audience to protect them from the North African sun. They are sorely needed, for when I watched Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas being performed there last year, the black-clad cast nearly melted, though I noticed that the heroic musicians protected their precious instruments with little umbrellas. Apart from a sun umbrella the only other thing you really need with you in Sabratha is a battered copy of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, so that you can read aloud his description of the emergence of the goddess Isis whilst you loll in the ruins of her temple by the coast.

I also insist in walking uphill from Isis to show friends the ruins of the little-known amphitheatre that squats there all melancholic and moody, and then exhausting them even further by marching them off to see the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church in the museum, the Punic mausoleum (a rare vestige of vanished Carthage which Turner-like you can use to create your own vanished metropolis) and the Forum ruins to identify the law-courts where Apuleius was put on trial for seducing an heiress. Having exhausted his own fortune with foreign travel, Apuleius married the wealthy mother of his best friend from university. A sort of Graduate come Big Chill moment with a twist, for some envious relatives accused him of besotting the widowed heiress with witchcraft. But that’s always the best bit about getting to know the ancient world, it all ends up feeling so damn modern and relevant.

Now we come to the break-off moment. I find five days with no alcoholic cocktails, no wine with my meals, and institutional dinners - just fine. The astonishing quality of the Roman ruins in Tripolitania more than compensates for this health-regime but to push beyond this, can result in a slow sense of diminishing return. Libyan mineral water is good, but the idea of a non-alcoholic can of beer is as repulsive in reality as in concept, while freshly squeezed fruit juice is still a virtually unheard of luxury. However on the other hand there is much more that is really excellent to see in Libya outside of Tripolitania, but the great distances involved necessitate extending your trip by at least another five days, maybe twice that. All else being equal I would advise that Libya be explored in three distinctive trips, beginning with Roman Tripolitania, then another year taking in the Greek and Byzantine ruins in Cyrenaica, before pushing deep into the south into the Sahara.

Indeed it has recently just become possible to get into Cyrenaica through the Egyptian western desert, and have a look at the exceptionally lovely Greek ruins at Cyrene (the city with its two separate forums, the sanctuary-complex of Apollo, the temple of Zeus, the statuary gallery, the necropolis and the nearby port city of Apollonia) make for an exuberant and very busy couple of days. This can be very easily extended by exploring the extensive and charmingly half-excavated Hellenistic city of Ptolemais, not to mention half a dozen evocative Byzantine church excavations tucked away in the hills and along the coast, including the mosaic floor at Ksar Libya and the small but exceptionally curious local carvings that adorn an old spring-head at Slonta.

My ideal exploration of the Libyan Sahara would begin with several days in the Saharan trading city of Ghadames, a miracle of Berber grace and ingenuity, which should be studied by all architects for how to survive extreme heat with elegance, sophistication and without the loathsome despoliation of the air-conditioner. Then I would completely avoid the over-visited lakes in the sand dunes, surrounded by the whirl of jeep-borne adventure trips, and head straight for the Jebel Acacus region. The strips of painted prehistoric rock art that decorate some fifty cliff faces in this Saharan region are a species of time-travel, and for once the landscape of Libya more than competes with the works of man. Wind sculpted cliffs, bleak black hills, combine with sublime drifts of golden sand desert, all enclosed within a vast rocky plateau.

In one such forbidding location within this plateau African animals that once roamed this region many thousands of years ago have been carved into the rocks that overlook a dry river bed (the Wadhi Mathendush). These are some of the most remarkable rock carvings in the entire Sahara, and date somewhere between 8,000 BC and the dawn of the historic period. I only spent five days camping in this region, (for it takes about three days to drive down here from Tripoli) but long to go back at a much slower pace – ideally with no jeep noise, just walking beside tent-laden camels. On the way back, we took even longer in order to taste the vast distances and stop off to explore such end of the road destinations as the old Saharan trading post of Murzuk. As we neared the coast, I stopped off at the Roman Saharan fort of Bou Njem (occupied by a detachment of cavalry on 24th Januray 201AD by order of our old friend Septimius Severus) as well as the late Roman ruins at Ghirza which include a dynasty of mausolea belonging to four generations of Romanised Berber chieftains.


To look at Roman Tripolitania properly you need to stay in the centre of Tripoli at the beginning and end of your trip, in Khums (the modern town just outside Leptis Magna) for at least two nights, and either see Sabratha by commuting out form Tripoli (without benefit of the enchanting hours of dawn and dusk) or stay nearby and enjoy the swimming.

Zumit Hotel & Restaurant
The Zumit wins out on location, for it occupies a courtyard house in the old city and is a perfect base from which to stroll out of the front door and explore the quite charms of the old Islamic city of Tripoli. All over hotels involve hazadrous crossings of the cities motorway-like roads and general indifference for the life of a strolling flaneur. It also stands right beside the one surviving Roman monument from ancient Tripoli (Oea) - the fine and battered old arch of Marcus Aurelius, whilst just uphill is the tile-filled prayer hall of the Gurgi Mosque, with a fish restaurant perched beside the arch on the other side of the square. Bedrooms are arranged in vaulted alcove-rooms around the upstairs gallery, and make up for atmosphere in what they lack in efficiency. Food is bland, and you should be aware that the courtyard restaurant is a popular location for groups having an evening-out with folklore.

Bab Corinthia
By far the most efficient hotel in all of Libya, (owned and run by a Maltese chain of hotels) with the usual vast bedrooms of a luxury hotel, the best kitchens, the best views and a satisfying buzz of oil industry executives and ambassadorial delegations in the foyer. Externally however it is an eyesore, an unforgiving pair of towers placed right beside the traditional low housing of the old city.

Souk Al Thulatha, Al Gadim, Tripoli 82874, LIBYA
T: +(218) 21 335 1990
F: + (218) 21 335 1992
E: reservations@corinthia.ly
W: www.corinthia.com

Severus Hotel
Brand new hotel, architecturally an unexciting four storey apartment block on the western edge of Al-Khums, which looks back over the family olive groves being bitten into by the growing town. Café to right of entrance foyer, well-run subterranean restaurant (with Tunisian chef) in the basement for buffet breakfast and four course dinner. Bit too far to walk 4km across town to the ruins of Leptis Magna, but Severus Hotel nevertheless wins out on location, especially as Leptis Magna demands three days for a proper discovery, and staying at the Severus allows you to linger at dusk after groups have all packed up (around 4pm) to return to their hotels or cruise-ships in Tripoli, a full hour and a half (traffic permitting) to the west.
Al-Fatah Street, Al-Khums, Libya
T (218) 31-2625086-87
F (218) 31-2625089
E info@severus.ly

Dar Tellile
The Dar Tellile is a classic beach-industry hotel set in its own harmonious gated compound with a swimming pool, ice-cream shop, pizza terrace and restaurant. In neighbouring Tunisia it would be just one amongst dozens such hotels but in Libya it is an exceptionally efficient and welcome enclave. Used by well-healed ruin-hunters, as well as oil and embassy workers in need of a break. It stands just above one of the best beaches in Tripolitania, just a mile and a half west of the ruins of Sabratha. Lovely white sand - though the ubiquitous rubbish problem of Libya begins the moment to step outside of the hotel strip. So far it has the sandy bay all to itself, though far to the west the lights of the oil refinery can be seen flickering through the Palm frond beach umbrellas.
Dar Tellile, Sabratha Beach, Libya
T 218-233643008
F 218-233643006
W www.dartellil.com

Philip Kenrick has recently written, Tripolitania, part of an envisaged series of Libya Archaeologocal Guides for the Silphium Press - which is part of the British Society of Libyan Studies. It is a wonderful, deeply engaged, authoritative pocket-sized guidebook which supersedes and updates the wonderful post-war achievement of Haynes. Not well stocked, you will need the ISBN to get your local bookshop to order up a copy, 978-1-900971-08-9.

A Cure for Serpents has a completely different tone, a funny, engaging, majestic and sensual survey of the Libyan people by an Italian doctor (and a Duke) who spent decades working in the country. Reprinted by Eland, isbn 978-0-907871-44-6, price £12.99, and available through their website, www.travelbooks.co.uk

You could also think about dipping into the third edition of my History of North Africa, by Barnaby Rogerson, as published by Duckworth's charismatic new owner, that living bridge between Manhattan and London, Peter Mayer.

DO’s and DON’T’s

Do Remember

  • Do not attempt to bring any alcoholic drinks or pork-based products into Libya
  • Do not attempt to get a visa if your passport bares any evidence of a visit to Israel
  • Do shop for embroidered suits and elegant cloaks in the old city, and the great thick chunky silver jewelry that has since the 60’s oil boom been replaced by gold
  • Do remember that practically all hotel staff (apart from the receptionist) are not Libyan, but probably either Tunisian, Moroccan or Egyptian. They are also away from home, on a labour contract, and are not awash with Libyan petro-dollars.
  • Swimming is theoretically forbidden off all the archaeological sites, but I have taken the risk of apprehension and had wonderful swims off both Leptis, Sabratha, Villa Silene and Apollonia.
  • Do not read Hashim Matar’s disturbing and brilliantly evoked new novel about contemporary Libya whilst in the country

The Visa situation changes each year. At the moment, tourist visas are freely available for small groups of visitors, not lone travellers. You may also require an Arabic translation of your passport details and it will normally be left until the last possible moment before the visa confirmation is sent to you, don’t panic, this has become standard practice. For help use a local Libyan agent, such as my friends Omar and Nuri, who run Jannat Tours from the Libyan town of Musratah. Omar El-Naass, IATA NO. 45-2 1034 0, P.O.Box:- 209 Musratah Libya
Tel: + 218 (0)51 2624585/6
Fax: + 218 (0)51 2623765
Mobile:+ 218 (0)91 2141796

Villa Silene
You might have heard about the Villa Silene (a wonderful Roman seaside villa on the coast outside Leptis Magna, but this has recently been closed for restoration work – so I have not mentioned it. The Hunting Baths on the western edge of the Leptis ruins are sometimes found to be closed, by drifting sand or not enough custodians on duty. If very disappointed by this, stop off at Janzur (on the edge of Tripoli as you head west to Sabratha) where some underground painted tombs have been made into a small museum and accessible to the public.

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